cognitive benefits of learning a second language
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Learning a foreign language can be intrinsically rewarding. But what are the cognitive benefits of learning a foreign language for older adults? And what is the connection between bilingualism and dementia — might one stave off the other? Some studies exist which support the broad statement that language learning can be beneficial in old age. But the research is limited, and the assertion that a second language can prevent dementia is inconclusive.

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After a very brief trip to Paris, I resolved to return — and be able to speak a little more French next time I went. A look through my local Parks and Rec pamphlet revealed that “French classes for travelers” were offered at various levels. So I signed up for beginner’s French.

I was a bit nervous, initially — not just about my capacity to learn the language, but that I would be the oldest person in the room. But not so! Many of the students were well into retirement. My daughter did not share my surprise: “Retirees have time for that. People my age are working and don’t have the time!” she explained. OK, then.

Foreign Language Learning as a Brain Training Tool

In exploring foreign language study, I’ve heard many people cite “to help my brain” as one reason they’re trying to learn a second language. It’s an appealing thought — that learning another language may help stave off dementia. And it’s something I like to tell myself to stay motivated at a time when it seems like a third planned trip to France is likely to be called off for the foreseeable future.

Indeed, learning a foreign language can be stimulating and rewarding, even in the absence of travel plans. The only cost other than the possible price of classes or paid learning tools is time. But learning a foreign language does take much time and dedication, whatever the Duolingo owl might tell you. Whether spending the time on language learning — as opposed to other cognitively challenging endeavors — is “worth it” is an individual decision.

Is Language Learning in the Senior Years Protective Against Dementia?

But the question remains if there’s any proof that foreign language study actually can offer a cognitive advantage during aging.

I spent part of my career working as an Occupational Therapist in rehab facilities. OTs and Speech Therapists sometimes employed popular computerized tools such as Lumosity (combined with clinical cognitive tools) to bolster cognitive components such as attention and memory in patients with brain injuries.

But Lumosity, as well as some other online “brain-training” tools, were sued by the FTC in 2016. After making unproven claims about what their programs could do for conditions like stroke or dementia, the lawsuit forced them to issue refunds to some subscribers.

I have what I think is a healthy balance of skepticism mixed with hope. I want to believe that my investment of time and money in developing language skills will pay off in some way. Learning a second language can help me appreciate my native language more. It can help me to enjoy touching another culture (just a bit) — even if I don’t get the opportunity to spend much time abroad. The added benefit of bolstering my cognitive capabilities into the later years would be a welcome bonus.

So I decided to look into what evidence exists in the research. I was a bit limited by not having scholarly access to articles nor a budget to pay for some. So I gleaned what I could from the research I could find. So — this is NOT a systematic review, but, instead, an exploration of what the benefits of language learning on seniors — other than the most explicit benefit of knowing a second language — might be.

Potential Cognitive Benefits of Learning a Second Language Learning for Seniors

Overall what I discovered is that research has cited decreased depression, improved ability to socialize, improved self-esteem as possible benefits of language learning as potential benefits of language learning into the senior years. Moreover, learning a second language, even a language learned in adulthood, does appear to confer some degree of cognitive “protection” in the senior years.

Of course, many of the studies I was able to view had a relatively small sample size. Therefore it’s helpful to see their results as suggestive rather than conclusive. Many factors can influence cognitive function in aging. Things are interrelated. A senior who is socially isolated may be more prone to depression, and depression can have a substantial impact on cognitive functioning.

A senior goes to a foreign language class. Going to that class gives that senior more social connectedness, which then helps to decrease the incidence of depression, which then leads to improved cognitive outcomes. This kind of indirect relationship, instead of a direct link between the “brain training” aspect of foreign language study and improvement in cognitive components, could be how language study works to improve cognitive outcomes in seniors.

Studies also looked at attributes such as mental flexibility and improved attention as benefits of language learning.

However, there’s more research that shows a correlation between physical activity and cognitive function during aging. More research exists because more researchers have devoted themselves to studying that link.

Here’s a list of some tidbits that I “discovered”:

  • In a 2010 review of 211 Alzheimer’s patients, half the patients were bilingual and half non-bilingual. The study showed that the bilingual patients had later onset of symptoms and later diagnosis than the non-bilingual group. However, the bilingual patients here had been bilingual since at least early adulthood. And the authors of the study are careful to clarify that they are not saying that bilingualism prevents dementia. This small-group study suggests that having significant cognitive reserve appears to have delayed the onset of dementia in this group. At least it delayed the appearance of dementia. Cognitive reserve is the brain’s ability to find alternative approaches and improvise in the face of cognitive challenges. The demand that learning new languages and switching between them puts on the brain bolsters this cognitive reserve.
  • The outcome of a 2014 study by Dr. Thomas Bak in Edinburgh suggested that bilingualism can help to reduce cognitive decline. Even when the individual learned that second language in adulthood, the effect held. Switching languages offers a challenge to our frontal cortex. The more tongues learned, it seemed, the stronger the effect. The results don’t constitute proof — the study had limited participants, and a questionnaire vs. a proficiency test was its method. But it is encouraging — and note that the study did not find any disadvantages to bilingualism.
  • An ongoing study is looking at the effects of combined meditation and foreign language learning program on older adults.
  • A literature review by Amy L. Atkinson found inconsistent findings between nine different studies (up until 2016) looking at the effects of bilingualism on dementia.

Conclusion: Inconclusive…But it Can’t Hurt!

So, no definitive proof exists that learning a foreign language will stave off dementia. However, evidence suggests that learning a second language can offer plenty of benefits. Whatever the goal, it seems that language learning may provide cognitive benefits at least on par with regularly touted activities such as Sudoku.

As a therapist and a family member, I’ve had experience with bilingual people with dementia. I’m well aware that any protective effect of bilingualism is just that –Protective, not preventative. Seniors who speak two (or more) languages do get dementia. I’ve had plenty of times where I had to give a gentle reminder to remember to switch back to English.

However, can it hurt to learn a second language? If I have to choose from the vast buffet of mentally challenging activities that may be protective of my cognitive functioning into old age, I would prefer to learn French than do word finds, Sudoku, or computerized “brain training” games. At least it will give my later years, perhaps, more savoir-faire or je ne sais quoi.


Note: This post originally appeared on Pacific Northwest and Beyond, but I relocated it as it better fit in the wider mix of content on this website.

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